Between Books aka Wallowing in Author Limbo

Latest novel published – sigh of relief.

Holiday in Mexico – brain reduced to mush in the heat.

Back home – routines restored.

Time to think of starting a new book, ie procrastinate.

And procrastination leads to sorting through old photos which leads to this blog.

Much of Whispers Under the Baobab is set in West Africa in 1970, and among my pictures I found a few I had taken back then that will give you a glimpse of what Flo saw and experienced as she fled across the Sahara to safety in Bamako.  Between Books aka Wallowing in Author Limbo                                                                    Click here for more information.

Here is the only picture I still have of the 14th century mosque in Tombouctou, destroyed by Islamists in 2012.

Between Books aka Wallowing in Author Limbo

From Tombouctou, Flo and Josef traveled by boat – the General Sumaré – down the Niger River. Flo was on the second level and was able to go up on the top deck to view the surroundings. Josef, on the main deck would not have had that luxury.

Between Books aka Wallowing in Author Limbo

When the General Sumaré beached on a sand bar, the women and children were taken to shore in these pirogues. They are propelled by pushing poles into the river bed and walking along the side of the boat. Back in 1970, goods were transported hundreds of kilometers from Guinea to Mali in these (heavily loaded) pirogues powered by man.

Between Books aka Wallowing in Author Limbo

Nearing Bamako, this is what the terrain looked like with calabashes growing in the fields.

Between Books aka Wallowing in Author Limbo

The Tuareg ring that Flo bought on her journey and wore on a leather thong.

Between Books aka Wallowing in Author Limbo


Making a pie in Mali for Christmas

Market, Bamako, Mali

Market, Bamako, Mali

So you’ve come to Mali to teach school. You’re thousands of miles away from home, missing family and in a couple of weeks you’ll be celebrating Christmas.

You and your roommate decide to host a dinner for your fellow volunteers, a motley group of singles and one married couple.

Chicken will substitute for the turkey. Plenty of potatoes and veggies to be found in the market. Nothing to simulate cranberry sauce, but dressing and gravy are doable. Your roommate’s copy of Fanny Farmer’s Cookbook is a godsend as good old Fanny’s recipes are basic and you can find most of the ingredients, if not all the spices.

Now for the sweets. No way to make shortbread. Cookies, sure, but are they really festive enough?

Then one day you trot off (ie walk slowly in the heat) to the market near your house to buy some veggies, and there, in a little three-walled shack made of corrugated tin, you spot a barrel of liquid, identity unknown. You speak enough Bambara to ask what it is, but you don’t understand the answer.

“Let’s buy some,” your friend says.

“What for?” you ask.

“She shrugs. Maybe we can figure out what to do with it.”

She’s the cook so you agree and head home for a jar and trudge back to the market where the vendor fills it for you. You take it home and put it in the fridge.

The next day, you see that the clear liquid has solidified to a white paste. You dip in a finger and rub a bit against your thumb.

“Texture of shortening,” your friend says, then gives it a sniff and a lick. “Let’s try making a pie.”

“A pie! What will we use for filling?”

Back to the market, the big one downtown this time and there you find a variety of tinned foods from China fortunately with pictures on the labels. You choose apples, buy a couple of tins, take them home, thicken the juice with flour, and proceed to make the crust.

Because there are no plastic bags (or containers with lids) to be had, you keep the flour in a calabash bowl covered with a cloth. You take off the cloth, tap the sides of the bowl, spin it and tap again. Tiny bugs (flour beetles? flour mites? weevils?) scurry up the sides. You tap and spin until satisfied the flour is bug free and measure out the amount needed. You refuse to worry about germs. Your rationale? The heat of baking will kill them.

And, the pie? Delicious. The pastry the flakiest you’ve ever had. Only later do you learn that the liquid you bought at the market was the very Shea butter now found in skin care products.

P.S. I’m off to Mexico for a month, where I once tried making shortbread for Christmas, but it was so hot the dough melted.


Raymond takes care of the Canadians


I lived in Mali some years ago. My husband and I have been here before for an extended visit and now we’re here again.

Despite our experiences in Mali, our host Raymond seems to feel a need to be “poule mère” or mother hen.

First it’s at the airport in Bamako and in the crowds his help is much appreciated. We whizz through customs as he seems to know all of the officers. Makes sense since he’s probably the one who taught them their self-defense courses.

Visiting the doctor, we once again appreciate his presence as he helps translate for us. Mind you, I could have done that myself. But the best part is his and the doctor’s glee in meeting a real “Bill Jones.” It seems that a certain Bill Jones figured largely in their English language lessons.

Then it’s off to the market to buy souvenirs and gifts for the folks back home. Raymond takes us to his preferred vendors and shakes a finger warningly as he admonishes them to not over charge us. He leaves us then to meander.

I’ve not forgotten how to bargain, and though it’s been many years since I lived in Mali, I know that 12,000 francs is way too much for the item in question. We bargain back and forth until we’re coming close to an agreement at 3,000 francs. Just then, Raymond walks up. The vendor takes one look at him and says, “1.000 francs, Madame.”

I stifle a giggle and hand the man a wad of francs that he will later discover to be 1,500 for I’ve tried, seemingly in vain, to explain to Raymond that a couple of dollars isn’t a big deal to us, but could be  and likely is a big deal to the vendor and his or her family.

Note: Currently the Internet tells me that 10 Malian francs (CFA) equal about 10 cents.

Soldiers, rifles, and ice cream


The year is 1972. We’ve spent a week in Morocco and now we’re in Mali to visit our friends. Their house is too small to accommodate us, but we’ve been offered the apartment belonging to a young couple from France who are away for a few weeks in Europe.

We also have a mobylette to scoot around town, so we’re set for the trip of a lifetime. We visit the zoo, swim in the Olympic sized pool built by the Russians, drive up to the hospital to see our friend and her brand new baby.

We also stop off to see the doctor and feel terribly embarrassed when we are escorted to the front of the long line. People have been waiting for hours, but we’re first—a courtesy to the guests. In answer to our protests, the doctor says, “You have left the comfort and safety of your home to visit a Malian friend. You do us the honor.”

“I think I’ll go get an ice cream,” my husband says one afternoon. “Want to come?”

“No thanks.”

The ice cream shop is just a couple of blocks away. He can manage on his own even though he doesn’t speak French. He leaves and a few seconds later I hear him calling my name. I step out and look over the balcony.

My husband is facing a soldier who has a very large gun pointed at his chest. Our apartment is opposite the court house which has been heavily guarded for several days as there is a trial on for the men who attempted coup a few months back.

I call out an explanation. It doesn’t get me very far as the soldier apparently has no concept of what ice cream is. I try again with a more general message that le monsieur is going to the store. The soldier nods and waves his gun indicating my husband can leave.

Later I look over the balcony again to see my husband handing a cone to the soldier and then demonstrating with his own how to eat it. They both look mighty pleased with themselves and I breathe a sigh of relief.




The things you don’t expect



You set out on your travels with images in your head. You’ve read about the place. You’ve seen the documentaries. You’ve held tight to your childhood imaginations.

It’s what you didn’t expect that hits hardest. Would you ever have imagined that stepping off the plane in Bamako, the heat would press you into the tarmac with a force so strong that your legs wobbled a little as you made your way to the terminal?

Would you ever have imagined the power of scent; the fact that 25 years after having lived in Bamako a whiff of myrrh could transport you instantly from your living room in Canada to the market in Bamako?

You stand under the Eiffel Tower looking up. You take the elevator to the top. You’ve seen this iconic land mark on dozens of documentaries and travel shows, but did you ever expect to be so awed in its presence?

You studied Egypt in grade 5, fascinated, as all kids seem to be, with the pyramids, the Sphinx, and the stories your teacher tells of the flooding of the Nile. But never, in all your imagining, did you expect the demarcation between lush green and barren desert to be so abrupt as when you saw it with your own eyes.

And your dream trip—a safari in Kenya. You knew you’d marvel at the animals, big and small, meandering in their natural environment, but did you know the greatest impact on your psyche would be the utter silence in the vast expanses of the Serengeti?

The unexpected—that’s what travels are made of.





A brighter future is not to be


It had been over twenty years since I’d been to Mali. Now, in 1995, what would I find?

In 1972, the airport crowd was sparse. We relinquished our passports to the customs official and waited. I heard a man calling “jeunesse, jeunesse” and looked around for a youth group. Then I saw that he was waving our passports in his hand and realized that jeunesse was his pronunciation of Jones.

In 1995, the airport is crowded and we don’t know which way to turn. Fortunately our Malian friend is there to meet us and he paves the way through the throngs of people to customs and then to collect our luggage which includes a huge box filled with toilet paper and Kleenex for him and his wife, items that are still expensive—when one is able to find them.

In 1972, the streets of Bamako were wide empty expanses. The post office steps vast and welcoming.


In 1995, I search in vain for those sprawling boulevards and I miss the post office entirely. The streets and steps are clogged with makeshift shacks and vendors and carts. Most streets are reduced to one lane so that vehicles manoeuver cautiously between pedestrians, chickens, goats, and children playing in what little space they can find.

Where did all the people come from? Starving and desperate in the countryside plagued by drought, they fled to the city searching for a better life that is not to be found.

I was shocked and saddened by what I saw. I’d naively thought that time would bring progress, that conditions in Mali would be so much better, that the beautiful city I remembered would shine brightly.

That was 1995. Now? I’ll know more in January when my friend comes to visit me here in Canada. I’m sure she’ll have reports that I don’t want to hear, but I will listen and ask what can be done to help.

Take a trip via your nose


I open the plastic bag of strange looking beads Chris has handed me. Actually they look more like globules stung on yellow cord. I inhale and am instantly transported 25 years back in time and thousands of kilometers away—to Bamako, Mali, where my friend still lives.

“Oh my, God, Chris. This takes me right back to the market in Bamako.” I close my eyes and see the stalls and vendors, inhale again and am overwhelmed with nostalgia. “What is it?”

“Myrrh,” she says.

“As in baby Jesus and Frankincense?”

She nods. “It’s the resin collected from the tree by making incisions and catching the drips that seep out onto the bark. Malian women wear strings of myrrh around their waist as a perfume.

“Why did we never find this when I lived there with you?”

She shrugs. I understand. We were learning so much in the early months that we simply didn’t have time to find it all.

I inhale again. And how, I wonder, can a smell be so powerful? It has transported me in a way no picture or words have been able to do. I feel tears trickling as I give her a huge thank you hug.

More about MYRRH

Myrrh, like frankincense, has always been consumed in large quantities, both in the preparation of domestic and religious incense, in perfumed oils and as medicine, and was at periods prized much higher than Frankincense. In medical terms, myrrh has antiseptic and sedative properties. It has been mentioned in Egyptian medical texts, and in ancient Egypt it was also used for embalming alongside Frankincense.

Now, is used as an antiseptic in mouthwashes, gargles, and toothpastes for prevention and treatment of gum disease. Myrrh has also been recommended as an analgesic for toothaches, and can be used in liniment for bruises, aches, and sprains. Myrrh is also used in veterinary practice for healing wounds.

To the tailor we go


It’s impossible to describe the poverty we are seeing. We can’t put into words the sensation of being pressed into the ground by the heat laden air. We can’t describe the smells of earth, and dung, and refuse that surround the area. But, worst of all, we can’t begin to describe the living conditions of the masses huddled on the edges of what used to be the wide sweeping boulevards of the city, now reduced to single lanes.

We’re in one of the worst areas at the moment, on the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak—not that there’s really a right side. We’ve come in search of a couple of tailors, young men from Sierra Leone who are said to make beautiful jackets.

We find them in a tiny windowless room where they live, sew, cook, and sleep. We admire their work. The men explain that they draw the designs and dye the fabric themselves.


I try on a vest. I’d like to see what it looks like. One of the young men hands me a mirror. It’s one of those little pocket mirrors. If I adjust it just right I can see a couple of square inches of the back of my shoulder. I think the vest is too big, but I buy it anyway.

My husband says he’d like a jacket. The men measure him with string, tying knots to mark shoulder width, arm length, etc. They promise to have the jacket ready in two days and they do.


Later, we learn later that the two wonderful artisans moved on looking for better prospects. Just where they might find them in the vast wastelands of West Africa is hard to fathom.

The Power of Books

Mali 6

As a CUSO volunteer, I taught school in Bamako, the capital of Mali. When I traveled to Mali many years later, I was invited to the school I had taught at as a guest speaker for the English as a Second Language students. I would be the “document authentique.”

I visited the grade 11 and grade 12 classes. I promised I would answer any question they asked as long as they used English. The students astounded me. They asked about racism, abortion, women’s rights, our political system, and differences between Canadians and Americans. They were curious about my reasons for being in Mali and about other countries I had visited.

When our Malian friend, Raymond, came to Canada I decided to take him to school with me as guest speaker in my French as a Second Language classes. I explained who he was and told my students that he was an Olympic athlete, coach, and, at that time, an Olympic level referee. I encouraged them to ask any questions they liked. They wanted to know if it was hot in Mali and what he ate. He was gracious with his replies. I decided that their limited language skills were getting in the way and offered to translate. The questions were still banal. Disappointed with the kids, I took Raymond home at noon. There was no point in putting him through more of that.

What bothered me then, and still does, was the great divide between the two groups of students. Some of that may be attributed to age differences. The girls in Mali were seventeen-year-olds and my students fourteen. But I’m not convinced that’s a good enough excuse for their complacency and the superficiality of the questions they asked.

Can I chalk it up then, to the affluence of our society, to the ease with which our every desire is satisfied as contrasted with Malians who grow up facing daily hardship—the hunt for food, for firewood, for water…?

What, if anything, would make a difference for our students? When I ask myself that question, books loom large in my mind as the answer. I grew up in a poor home. We always had enough to eat, but certainly didn’t have extras. A five-cent comic book once in a while was a huge treat: the fat twenty-five cent comic rare and treasured. Books, when I could get my hands on some, were life to me then. They still are.

For me, reading is a deep and satisfying activity. Novels spark my curiosity, teach me about the world, about people—character, motivation, emotions. Books make me think and wonder and ponder.

Is that what’s missing in the youth of today? Engrossed with all the available social media—and not having to worry about their very survival—are they missing deeper meanings and understandings? Would reading books make a difference? I think so. Books do have power—more power than some people would like. Why else would they be banned or burned?

“If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The Mali I love – as it was then

Many years ago I lived and worked in Mali as a CUSO volunteer. I shared a house with another volunteer, who subsequently married a Malian and still lives in Bamako. For now, she says they are okay, but of course I worry.

The experience for a young Canadian was eye-opening to say the least. We were fortunate enough to be able to travel extensively. Segou, Mopti, Tombouctou, Gao … We enjoyed the hospitality of Malians and had great respect for their ability to cope in impoverished conditions. Wide warm smiles greeted us wherever we went.

I cannot and do not want to picture the devastation and destruction northern Mali is now enduring.

Here are a few pictures of Mali as it was then.





See also: